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A Global Need for a Universal-Minded Russia

Could some of Russia’s finer traditions improve international relations today?

November 22, 2004

Could some of Russia's finer traditions improve international relations today?

Russia's temperament is universalist. Equality was inscribed in the heart of the Russian peasant family structure by a rule of inheritance that was absolutely symmetrical.

Under Peter the Great, the Russian nobles rejected primogeniture — the rule of inheritance that favors the eldest son to the detriment of the other siblings.

Like the French peasants who had become literate before the French Revolution, the Russian peasants who became literate in the 20th century spontaneously considered all men equal.

Communism spread as a universalist doctrine offered to the world with — I admit — tragic and disappointing results.

However, the underlying universalist approach allowed for the transformation of the Russian empire into the Soviet Union.

Bolshevism drew the Russian empire's minorities into its circles of power — Baltics, Jews, Georgians and Armenians. Like France, Russia's seductiveness flowed from its capacity to treat all men as equals.
Communism eventually fell apart. And today, we find that the anthropological base of the former Soviet sphere is changing slowly.

And yet, despite these changes, the new Russian democracy — if it succeeds — will retain certain basic characteristics. We should keep them in mind if we want to anticipate its likely future behavior on the international scene.

For starters, a liberal Russian economy will never be an individualist Anglo-Saxon style capitalism. Instead, it will keep communitarian features, creating horizontal associative forms that it is too early to define more precisely.
Similarly, the political system is unlikely to function along the lines of the alternating two-party English and American model.

Anyone who wants to speculate about the future shape of Russia ought to read the classic study by Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, "L'Empire des tsars et les russes" (1897-1898).

It contains a comprehensive description of the behaviors and institutions marked by Russia's communitarian sensibility 20 to 40 years before the triumph of communism.

Russia’s universalist approach to international politics will trigger reflexes and instinctive reactions close to those of France — evidenced, for example, by the way France irritates the United States by its "egalitarian" approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Unlike some Americans, Russians do not go around thinking there is an a priori borderline separating real men from everyone else — Indians, blacks and Arabs.
They have also not exterminated Indians, at least since the conquest of Siberia in the 17th century.

The survival of Bashkirs, Ostiaks, Maris, Samoyeds, Buryats, Tungus, Yakuts, Yukaghirs and Chukchees testifies to the complex structure of the Russian Federation.

In my view, the Russian universalist temperament is cruelly lacking in international politics today.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union — and with it a certain egalitarian angle on international relations — explains in part the unleashing of differentialist tendencies among Americans, Israelis and others.

The theme of France's little universalist music is faint indeed without the power of Russia as amplifier. The return of Russia within the international balance of power can only help the United Nations.

If Russia can avoid the pitfalls of anarchy and authoritarianism, it could become a fundamental balancing force in the world — a strong, non-hegemonic nation expressing an egalitarian understanding of the relations between peoples.

This attitude will be all the easier to maintain since — unlike the United States — Russia does not rely on asymmetrical levies throughout the world for its raw materials, finished goods, capital or oil.

Adapted from “After the Empire” by Emmanuel Todd. Copyright © 2002 Editions Gallimard. Translation copyright © 2003 by Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press and Editions Gallimard. All rights reserved.